Anita Heiss' Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is an affecting tale of Aboriginal identity and dispossession

Anita Heiss has written a powerful and affecting tale of Aboriginal identity. Picture: Supplied

Anita Heiss has written a powerful and affecting tale of Aboriginal identity. Picture: Supplied

Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray - River of Dreams is set in the mid-19th century and tells the story of Wagadhaany, a young Wiradjuri woman, and the colonisation of her people's lands. It also tells a story of the mighty Murrumbidgee River - Marrambidya Bila - as it flows from Gundagai to Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales.

Marrambidya means big flood or big water. The river not only gives life but it also takes it away.

The novel begins in Gundagai in 1838. Wagadhaany is a young girl when she witnesses her father advising a white man, Henry Bradley, not to build on the flats next to the Murrumbidgee River, advice that Henry ignores. The story then shifts forward to 1852 and the great flood. By this time, Wagadhaany is a young woman and working as a servant to the Bradley family, the same family her father advised not to build on the river flat.

When the river rises suddenly, the Bradley family takes refuge, with Wagadhaany, on the roof of the house. In the stinging rain they cling to the roof as the floodwaters rise. Most of the Bradley family are swept away in the raging floodwaters, along with many townsfolk. Wagadhaany's father bravely manages to rescue many townsfolk and also his daughter and two of the Bradley brothers, James and David.

This flood, a metaphor for the devastating effects of European colonisation, is the triggering event for Wagadhaany's moving story that unfolds over the years. An important theme of the book is the clash of cultures that follows European settlement and appropriation of the land. Through Wagadhaany's servitude to the two surviving Bradley brothers, James and David, and her developing friendship with a young Quaker widow, Louisa, the reader sees the unequal power relations of black and white men and women play out.

The novel is written in the present tense and largely from the viewpoint of Wagadhaany. But we also occasionally see events from the perspective of other characters, most notably from the viewpoint of Louisa - widowed and orphaned by the flood - who befriends Wagadhaany.

Louisa occupies a kind of intermediate position between the Wiradjuri peoples with their culture of community and sharing and caring for the land, and the harsh male-dominated culture of European settlers, with their emphasis on individualism and exploitation of the land and its peoples.

While Louisa's perspective reflects Quakers' values - their beliefs in equality and the rights of Aboriginal peoples - her opinions run into conflict with those of James Bradley when she takes him for her second husband.

When the Bradleys move to Wagga Wagga, to escape the memory of the devastating earlier flood and to get better land, Louisa insists - against Wagadhaany's wishes - that she travels with them. Uprooted from her home, her land, her belonging, Wagadhaany is broken hearted by this cruel disconnection.

With Louisa's marriage to James - a marriage based on strong physical attraction rather than any meeting of minds - Louisa's principles become slowly eroded and she loses her original focus. While she still believes in equality for all, she loses her impetus to act upon these beliefs as she becomes caught up in the Bradley brothers' work and in James's ambition to become mayor of Wagga Wagga.

At the Wagga Wagga property, Wagadhaany's fractured heart begins to mend as she falls in love with Yindyamarra, a Wiradjuri stockman working for the Bradley brothers. Her relationship with him is in sharp contrast with Louisa's relationship with her abusive husband James.

At the same time as Louisa's Quaker principles are being confronted, Wagadhaany develops a deeper understanding of how European encroachment is eroding the Wiradjuri people's traditions and culture, and she becomes more determined to keep her culture alive and to see her community again.

A delight of the book is the Wiradjuri words that are often used. While their meaning can usually be picked up in context, there is a glossary. (It would have been great also to have included the phonetic spelling alongside, for readers interested in language.)

Essentially River of Dreams is a heartfelt story of colonisation and its negative effects. It is a story of tragic dispossession as Aboriginal kinship groups are displaced, increasingly driven off their land, and eventually corralled into reserves.

At the same time, the novel tells a powerful and affecting tale of Aboriginal people's identity, community and deep connection to country.

  • Alison Booth's latest novel, The Philosopher's Daughters, explores the clash of cultures in 1890s northern Australia.
This story An affecting tale of dispossession first appeared on The Canberra Times.